“This is Us,” an NBC show about a blended family told in different timelines, is arguably this fall season’s breakout hit. Focusing on three siblings — two twins and their adopted brother — coping with different crises at the age of 36, it’s quickly become a favorite for its honest portrayal of race, class, gender and body size.
One of the biggest storylines revolves around Randall, who was adopted by his parents from the hospital in the 1980s after his adoptive parents lost one of their triplets during childbirth. As an African-American in a white, middle-class family, he struggles to find his identity after he reconnects with his long-lost birth father.
The show is a great resource for adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees alike, educating viewers about adoption and the struggles all parties experience during their lifelong adoption journey. Although Randall was adopted in the 1980s in a closed adoption (rare today), many of his and his parents’ challenges will resonate with those affected by adoption.
American Adoptions highly recommends adoptive families watch “This is Us” as another way to normalize adoption in your household. To catch you up before tonight’s midseason finale, we’ve compiled a list of what “This is Us” has addressed about adoption so far.
How Closed Adoptions Can Negatively Affect Adopted Children
Randall’s adoption is an example of a “safe haven” adoption, wherein his birth father (William) left him in the custody of firefighters after his mother died giving birth to him. Randall is then brought to the hospital, where Rebecca and Jack choose to adopt him after one of their triplets dies during birth.
William lingers at the hospital to make sure Randall is taken care of, and Rebecca realizes who he is. She speaks with him once shortly after she adopts Randall and then revisits him later in Randall’s childhood. However, she keeps the knowledge of Randall’s birth father a secret from both her husband and her son and eventually decides that William cannot have contact with his son.
Not knowing anything about his birth parents is hard on Randall, a black boy being raised in a white family. Although it’s revealed his birth parents both had substance abuse issues (which is why Rebecca chose to keep his history a secret), the “what ifs” and unknowns of his adoption cause him to search out his birth father through a private investigator — which leads to an eventual meeting filled with anger, guilt and confusion.
While closed adoptions like Randall’s are not as common today as they were in the 1980s, his story demonstrates how children can be affected if they don’t know the truth about their adoption. Of course, not all adopted children are the same, but the hurt and confusion about why adopted children were “abandoned” at birth are usually not feelings that disappear over time.
Closed adoptions may seem like the easiest choice for adopted parents who worry about how birth parents might affect their child, but it’s important to understand that when children know about their birth parents, it doesn’t decrease the amount of love for their adopted parents at all. In fact, it makes the adoption process easier and can create a stronger bond between adoptive parents and adopted children — one based on love and respect.
Adopted Children are Naturally Curious about their Birth Parents
While Rebecca and Jack provide a healthy, stable home where Randall has everything he could want, it doesn’t prevent him from wondering about his adoptive parents. Late in his childhood, he begins asking other black people if they can roll their tongues like him — a genetic trait that he thinks will help him track down his birth parents.
Rebecca, insecure about her ability to mother three children (one of them being adopted), takes this personally. She worries that in Randall seeking out his birth parents, she’s failed somehow to be “enough” of a mother for him. But, as many adopted children will say, the desire to know about birth parents is not a reflection on adoptive parents at all — just a natural curiosity to learn more about where they came from and their personal identity.
Because biological family plays a large role in that personal identity, many adopted children will ask questions about their adoptive parents at some point or another. You should prepare yourself to answer those questions honestly; an open adoption with the birth parents can help you do so. It will not make you any less of a parent to your child if you expose them to their birth parents, but your children will have a newfound appreciation for your strength in doing so.
Birth Parents Hurt Long After the Adoption, Too
Adoption can be a difficult journey for all involved, but the emotional plight birth parents go through even long after the adoption is complete can sometimes be overlooked. While they know their decision is the best one for their child, the grief and loss they feel may never completely disappear.
In several “This is Us” episodes, we see William struggling with the sadness he still feels from placing his son for adoption — especially after Rebecca decides he cannot be a part of Randall’s life. While he knows that he make the best decision for Randall, he’s also plagued with the “what ifs.” Not being in contact with his son for 36 years only makes his situation more difficult.
When we think about adoption today, it’s important to remember that birth parents are forever affected by their decision to place their child for adoption. It’s a long healing process for all involved, and this is just one of the situations where open adoption can be helpful. Even if William had not been able to meet Randall, periodic updates about his son would have been instrumental in his healing.
How a Transracial Adoption Requires Extra Work
As a black man growing up in a white, middle-class family, Randall needed things that his parents simply couldn’t provide on their own: education about his culture and race, role models who looked like him and even simple hygiene skills tailored to his race.
When his parents take Randall to the community pool, he finds a group of black children to hang out with, rather than his own siblings. When Rebecca scolds him for wandering off, a black mother approaches her, informing her that she needs to find Randall a proper barber. This mother serves as an invaluable resource for Rebecca and Jack, giving them the education they need about raising a black son and providing Randall a community of people who look like him.
Jack even seeks out a black male role model for his son in a dojo instructor. Although the instructor provides a black father authority that Randall is missing, he also includes Jack in the initiation rituals that all the other black fathers do.
If you’re an adoptive parent raising or looking to raise a child of another race, it’s important that you fully educate yourself on your child’s culture and race to help them develop their personal identity. You will need to reach out for resources, even if it makes you uncomfortable to do so. Remember, asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent — it just means you want to give your child the best chances possible.
Adoption is a Lifelong Journey
Every adoption story is different, but there will always be some unique challenges for the adopted child, the adoptive parents and the birth parents. No one can anticipate every problem that can arise during an adoption, so it’s a constant learning process.
While Randall’s closed adoption is uncommon nowadays, his story shows how even an adult adoptee can confront issues about his adoption later on in life. The identity of an adopted child, adoptive parents and birth parents are constantly changing — and it can be a messy process.
But, as long as there are open relationships between all involved in the adoption process, these issues can usually be resolved in healthy ways that will only make your connections deeper and more meaningful.
For anyone who has been affected by adoption, watching “This is Us” can be a helpful way to see your experiences normalized on screen. Whether you’re a birth parent, an adoptive parent or an adoptee, there’s something for everyone.
“This is Us” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC. You can catch up and watch “This is Us” online on Hulu.